In recent months I have been invited to at least three different events organised by different civil society and social justice movements. At the core of the discussions, in all of them, was the desire to find a way to pull back some of the powers that were too trustingly – even naively – handed over to the governing ANC in the early 1990s.
Many will recall that even the once-effective, multiracial, United Democratic Front that used to be at the forefront of the internal resistance to and fight against apartheid, was dismantled soon after the ANC and other anti-apartheid movements were unbanned and allowed to operate again on home soil.
In the general euphoria of those days, there seemed to have been an unwritten consensus that with former exiles and those who had been imprisoned for decades back home, the leadership baton could be safely handed over to them. There was very little talk of ‘what if’ or a need for ‘checks and balances’. It was assumed that the returnees invested with the powers to lead our nation, united in its diversity, could only do right for country and all the people of South Africa.
In those early days, even much of the direct foreign funding of non-government organisations lightening the heavy yoke off the shoulders of the poor and the oppressed in many parts of the society slowly came to a trickle and, in most cases, eventually to a complete stop.
Some former social activists packed their stuff and went off to either retire blissfully or to find something else to live on. Others got lucky enough to get government jobs.
Over time, too, increasing numbers of many former exiles trickled back into the country to take key leadership positions in government. The new masters had returned and the future already looked bright.
SA problems, SA solutions
With the government of the people by the people in place, there was also no longer a need for South Africans unhappy about anything on home soil to run to the UN, foreign embassies or their governments, or to other outside bodies.
As we know, this is a resistance stratagem that was resorted to quite a lot, during apartheid, to expose the evil ways of the National Party and everyone linked to it. In many cases it worked quite magnificently, as it resulted in the apartheid government coming under tremendous pressure from around the world.
The ANC and other formations in exiles also supported this stratagem and, in many cases, either initiated its activation or actively drove it. That is how apartheid South Africa eventually came down to its knees under the pressure of global economic sanctions or, put another way, isolation by direct foreign investors.
In those days, there were threats of boycotts of many kinds – supported by the ‘inxiles’ at home and the exiles in the diaspora – economic sanctions, political isolation, sports and academic boycotts, etc. Over time, it became uncool in many parts of the world for anyone to publicly proclaim any association with the apartheid government of South Africa.
So, even in an era during which smartphones and digital media, including social media platforms, did not or barely existed, ‘telling on’ the government of the day and relying on outsiders to act, became an effective moral tool against the National Party.
The post-apartheid emotional blackmail
It is probably because of the history of how ‘reliance on outside pressure’ was used and played an effective part in the past that South Africans in the new era so easily seem to fall for the emotional bludgeoning that consists of being treated as something akin to enemies of the state, close to being treasonous, or of wanting to help former colonisers – the same ones we constantly beg to invest in our economy – to “reverse the gains of democracy”.
The latter expression is part of the most effective post-apartheid blackmail arsenal used against anyone who places the spotlight on questionable conduct by those who have been trusted to govern in the new era.
But South Africans should never forget the values enshrined in their country’s Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Some of these are transparency, adherence to a human rights culture, law-driven governance, respect of the independent democratic institutions that were established to help make the promises espoused in our Constitution come true, the need to build South Africa into a true home for all, and to be a positive contributor and leader to human endeavour, at home and abroad.
Only those with nefarious intentions to hide will resort to emotional blackmail. Those who love South Africa must not be cowered by the blackmail and be forced to stop insisting that our country by led ethically, in accordance to the rule of law and the principle of equality before the law.
It must also be a shining example that remains visible for scrutiny to the entire world as such.
And no rules of diplomatic protocol should be used as an excuse to defend the indefensible. The past ten years have shown us, more than ever before, that in the case of those who rely on powerful political connections to weaken and repurpose our vital institutions to rob us of the resources we need – we might yet again need to apply pressure from other parts of the world.
In the absence of any real action taken against the people we trusted to lead, this pressure may help our country can recalibrate yet again.
Allowing ourselves to be blackmailed into misplaced patriotic silence so that criminals can continue running amok, far from the glare of the outside world, can never be in the best interest of South Africa. If we do this, we’d be complicit in the madness.